Would you believe it if I told you that the best Batman film wasn’t directed by Christopher Nolan or Tim Burton? How about if I told you that the best person to hold the role never actually put on the Batsuit? Well, it’s true, at least for me: The 1993 film Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is as iconic of a portrayal of its central hero as you’ll find in cinema, nearly on par with the Fleischers’ Superman cartoons from the 1940s, or Sam Raimi’s take on Spider-Man, but thanks to a miserable release by its studio, Warner Bros., who didn’t totally realize what they had on their hands.
As such, it’s been buried for nearly 25 years, but you have a chance to see it in theaters on May 24 and 25, if you live near Boston. The Brattle Theatre in Cambridge is putting it on screen (on 35mm film, as well) as a part of their “Reunion Week” series, which pays tribute to films hitting a special anniversary right around the time that Harvard has its class reunions. The first feature film from the brain trust behind Batman: The Animated Series — producer Alan Burnett, writer Paul Dini, and artist/designer Bruce Timm — the also-iconic television show which aired on Fox, Mask of the Phantasm sees the Batman myth for what it is: A tragedy, and the film examines it as such.
It begins with a normal enough sight, especially for fans of the show: Batman (the irreplaceable Kevin Conroy) crashing through a window and fighting off some counterfeiters, who plan on laundering their fake bills through a mobbed-up casino. The Bat battles a series of goons, in a scene that ultimately winds up mirroring the iconic opening of the series: A quick series of fights, in which the gangsters are totally outmatched by the Dark Knight, only with a twist at the end: the head honcho, a mobster named Chuckie Mol (Dick Miller), escapes to the garage. It’s there he’s confronted by a masked figure that he mistakes, at first, for Batman, until the figure reveals itself and tells him that “his angel of death awaits.” Sure enough, by the end of their encounter, Mol lies dead behind the wheel of his car, having plummeted from the garage into an office building next door, and with Batman taking the blame. Over the course of the coming weeks, other mobsters meet their ends at the hands of the Phantasm (voiced by Stacey fuckin’ Keach), and it’s up to Batman to solve the mystery of who is murdering these men, while also dodging the police, who are growing more skeptical of the Caped Crusader via the manipulation of a corrupt city councilman (Hart Bochner).
At the same time, one of Bruce Wayne’s old flames, Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany), has returned to Gotham after years of being on the lam, thanks to the business dealings of her corrupt father. This really messes with Bruce, and we learn about their relationship over the course of a number of flashbacks: They were once engaged, and Bruce nearly gave up on his vow to bring justice to the city of Gotham. However, the Beaumonts fled the country before they could ever tie the knot, the ring being returned to Bruce at the same time he begins exploring what would become the Batcave. This rights him on his path, and he becomes the Batman, and Andrea lives out a quiet life in the intervening years in Italy with her father, before he’s senselessly murdered. If you have a brain between your ears, you can figure out where this is going: Andrea has returned to Gotham to enact her vengeance upon the mobsters who killed her father, and has done so, unwittingly, in a similar fashion to her beau: By dressing up in frightening clothes and enacting vigilante justice in lieu of what she’d receive by going through the Justice System. And much like in other works of superhero fiction, the mob’s eldest patriarch, Sal Valestra (Abe Vigoda), turns to a force that he has history with but doesn’t totally understand for protection.
It helps that it all looks so wonderful; Timm’s aesthetic blends nicely with the subject material, and Burton’s era-fusion is held over and improved upon by the cartoon. The pallid gothic arches of the live action world are replaced by thematically appropriate art deco stylings, perhaps better reflecting the cinematic world at the time of the Caped Crusader’s invention — in short, it’s less German Expressionist and more its direct antecedent, Film Noir — but without ever being totally derivative of any particular aesthetic up to that point. The red sky over the city, indicative of smog and cloud cover, gives a surreal twilight feel to the proceedings, and its emphasis at the most striking of times: Say, in the computer-animated opening credits, help to create a mood better than a simple black. The style isn’t without its modern touches, and they are small grace notes — Technology (televisions, cameras, computers) and fashion, which, when merged with the classical noir stylings help to accentuate the timeless feel of the world itself, and I often have forgotten the film’s age during repeat viewings of the film, only to be jarred into its historical context by the Sheena E. slow jam that plays during the credits. But I never really notice the music when I watch it: The ending just breaks my heart each time.
There’s a deep melancholy at the heart of Mask of the Phantasm that is intoxicating and fascinating. Perhaps that’s because we spend as much time with Bruce Wayne as we do with Batman, and, unlike in literally every other film about the character, it’s just as interesting from a motivation and thematic standpoint. The David Carradine monologue about Superman from Kill Bill Vol. 2 perhaps best represents other filmmakers’ ethos with regards to the Bruce Wayne/Batman dichotomy: Bruce Wayne is a mask Batman wears in order to fit into normal society. But Dini and the other writers don’t see that as an unalienable truth, and their portrayal of the character has more color to it than of any iteration outside of Adam West’s. We see Bruce smile often, we see him take ribbing from Alfred (“Why, you’re the very model of sanity”), and, most importantly, we see him fall in love and look for any sort of out to his “oath.” The scenes in which he’s standing in front of his parents’ grave, begging for a reprieve from the heavens so that he can just have something resembling a normal life are amongst the saddest in all of the character’s history. “I never counted on being happy,” he tells their tombstone, and we believe him deeply.
Beaumont, as well, is unlike any other girlfriend of Wayne’s. She’s the only person in his world who can see him for more than his wealth, and she constantly puts him down for it. She establishes an societal equality with him that’s made physical when she judo-throws him over her shoulder on their second date. She’s his one true romance that occurs without the threat of the cape looming over their shoulder, and, without her father’s business dealings with organized crime collapsing the relationship before it can be solidified into a marriage, she could have actually prevented the superhero from existing. We see the moment when fate fully takes over, when, after Bruce proposes to Andrea, we watch a swarm of bats take to the skies, signaling some great omen that neither of the characters fully understand at the time. These will be the last moments of Bruce Wayne’s normal life, and his last chance to avoid what will ultimately be a suicide mission. And, when Alfred sees Bruce put on the cowl for the first time, he reacts in shock and horror; not because the get-up is particularly frightening, but because, in the words of co-writer Michael Reaves, “he’s watching this man he’s helped raise from childhood, this man who has let the desire for vengeance and retribution consume his life, at last embrace the unspeakable.”
As such, there are no happy endings for him, and this may be the only Batman film ever made to suggest that the world in which Bruce Wayne never became the Dark Knight is perhaps a better one, and that the Gotham of Batman is perhaps the worst of all possible outcomes. It’s hinted at heavily in the film’s conclusion, in which, after following Andrea to the World’s Fair that they once toured “the city of the future” of in happier days — once bright and joyous, now a rust-ridden pit of despair that a madman plays house in — to prevent her being killed by or to prevent her from killing her father’s murderer, the Joker (played by the unparalleled Mark Hamill), who has used the ruined fair and its exhibits as a hideout. After a fight in which Andrea narrowly escapes with her life, Batman arrives and fights the Joker in a number of locations about the park, chief amongst them being an architectural model of Gotham (much like the one of the Five Boroughs that resides in the Queens Museum in New York), where they duke it out, kaiju-style, in what feels like the last battle that the two will ever have.
Of course, it wouldn’t turn out to be like that, but there’s an apocalyptic feel to make the shift in scale. And that’s before the Joker quite literally destroys the model of future Gotham with a series of explosions that wind up leveling the entire park, foreshadowing that the eventual conflict between the two titans will cause everything to go up in flames. And indeed, that’s the most likely outcome when, to use Nolan’s parlance, “the immovable object meets the unstoppable force:” a whole lot of people are going to suffer. Once again, Andrea disappears, this time with the object of her vengeance in her grasp, and Batman almost dies once the park collapses. He resurfaces in ruins, left standing alone surrounded by the fruits of his labor, and of his quest: Destruction. He has failed on every level.
Reflecting on his failure, Bruce gets a speech from Alfred about not succumbing to the darkness that Andrea did, and points out that things could be worse: He could be killing people, having lost sight of his goals and consumed entirely by vengeance. It’s then that Bruce finds a locket in a crevice across the cave, a memory of time past, a glimpse of a hopeful past that grows further from memory each day. And finally, we’re treated to what seems, initially, to be a hopeful tag at the end of the film: It shows us that Andrea didn’t die in the explosion and has escaped to an ocean liner, but is over come with grief. A drunken man heads out on deck, away from a large party going on inside, and asks her if she’s alone, and much like Don Draper, she responds that she is. We’re left with the image of Batman resuming his work, but it ultimately feels hollower than it might have earlier, robbed of its power in some measure by the reality of the hero’s suffering.
Of course, this film wouldn’t make any money: Warners decided on a theatrical release at the last minute, and it failed to attract the adult audience that B:TAS commanded on Sunday nights after football finished airing on Fox, and children didn’t turn out as well, presumably frightened away by the darkness in tone. The film wasn’t even available on Blu-Ray until earlier this year, and it’s sad, as the Capes division of Warners Animation would never be better, and deserved a memento worthy of their accomplishment. I’m sure that’s a bit of a controversial opinion around some parts; after all, some people came of age with Superman or Justice League, Timm and Dini’s later efforts, and they are both excellent shows that included writing work from comics giants like the late Dwayne McDuffie. They’d do another solid feature together with Batman: Subzero, a film centered around Mr. Freeze (a character the brain trust totally revived from obscurity and gave a tragic new backstory to), and would court significant controversy with the most extreme feature, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, which puts the blood featured in Phantasm to shame.
Dini’s work has remained perpetually solid since then (his 2016 graphic novel Dark Night, about the PTSD he suffered from a mugging he’d been the victim of in the ’90s is truly incredible), but Timm, after years of working quietly at Warners on projects like the TV series Ben10 and other DC animated films, made a gigantic blunder with last year’s The Killing Joke, the first Batman animated film to appear in theaters since Phantasm. Without Dini or Burnett to temper him, he went fully explored perhaps what would be his creepiest fetish on screen, and he was rightfully ridiculed for it. But to deny the influence that he has had on an entire generation of animators and storytellers is extreme, and, to this day, no filmmaker has come close to creating a superhero film with the emotional depth of Mask of the Phantasm in the mainstream cinema, much less with arguably the world’s most popular superhero. It’s an achievement one can’t easily erase, no matter how hard they try.
‘BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM’ :: Friday, May 25 and Saturday, May 26 at The Brattle Theatre, 40 Brattle St. in Cambridge, MA :: $11.50, all ages, 10 p.m. on Friday and 12:30 p.m. on Saturday :: Advance tickets :: Featured image via Warner Bros., via MoviestillsDB